Art & Commerce

by Dan Daley • in
  • Last Word
  • May 2018
• Created: May 2, 2018

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Art and commerce have been uneasy bedfellows for centuries, and it hasn’t been getting any easier lately.

The great composers of the classical era had to balance following their muse with finding affluent patrons who would help with the rent. The music business from the late 1960s into the ‘90s was a remarkable exception to this formula, and quite frankly an economic outlier in 2,000 years of professional musicianship. Musicians of that time made a point of thumbing their noses at crass commercialism, something made easier by the largess of a record industry swimming in cash, first from rock & roll’s enthrallment of what would come to be known as the Baby Boom generation, and later from the vast amounts of money minted by the Compact Disc. This was a time when you could spend as much on a single music video as on making an entire LP – all of which cost more than the average house at the time – and no one batted an eye.

But that’s all changed.

After digital ripping ripped the rug out from under the CD more than a dozen years ago, musicians came around to the idea that maybe being “commercial” wasn’t all that bad. Thus, we have Taylor Swift partnering with AT&T, Jay-Z hooking up with Samsung, and Ozzy Osbourne and Pepsi all teaming up for product launches – theirs and their sponsors’. So knowing all that, what are we to make of when another kind of artist – a luthier, for example – has a head-on encounter with the exigencies of corporate bean counting? That’s what’s been going on at Heritage Guitars, the company established by former Gibson Guitar craftsmen who stayed behind in Kalamazoo, Michigan after Gibson moved its manufacturing to Nashville 34 years ago. Heritage leaned heavily on its craftsmanship for marketing its guitars as well as building them, but then its owners – luthiers themselves – sold the company to PlazaCorp, a real estate developer that also happened to own the building Heritage was housed in. PlazaCorp didn’t do away with Heritage, but it did apply some severe new efficiencies, including assigning neck and other critical manufacturing to a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) system. In the process, 10 crafts workers were let go, and they were followed out the door sympathetically by four of their colleagues.

It’s the sort of occurrence that prompts people to choose sides based on far deeper loyalties. Are the luthiers of Heritage among a declining cohort defending quality craftsmanship, a beacon to a world focused too intensely on bottom-line outcomes to understand that no machine can impart a soul to its products? Or are they reactionary Luddites who can’t see that economic efficiencies are needed to create longer-term value for more people, and that they’ll need to acquire skill sets necessary in a more fast-paced business landscape? PlazaCorp seem to be doing a number of important things correctly. For starters, they didn’t shutter the guitar company, and the new measures they’re imposing will help it contend in a super-competitive market sector (retail) and a challenged product category (guitars). They’re also taking a broader view, partnering with Singapore-based music retailer and distributor BandLab Technologies, which also recently acquired the Rolling Stone magazine brand, all of which will help promote, market, and sell those guitars.

They’ve also floated the idea of adding a live entertainment venue, a recording studio, a musical instrument store, a rehearsal space, and a café/restaurant in the building.

On the other hand, when brands built around the ideal of individual craftsmanship get into bed with companies whose main product is capital and whose sole goal is profit, outcomes have often been spotty, at best. Companies from EMI Records to Sears have been seduced and abandoned by VC swains, just loaded with debt and dumped.

Heritage’s departing craftsmen still have a message for us, one that definitely resonates in the America of the moment. Quality does matter, and it’s people who create that quality. It’s noble that they’re willing to bet their futures and those of their loved ones on the importance of that. But Heritage’s new owners at least seem to want to make a go of MI manufacturing. Looking at a company’s financials through the prism of productivity is smart, and not necessarily soulless. There has to be some middle ground here that will keep the hands, hearts and skills of Heritage’s legacy involved in its products and its future, without breaking the bank in the process. I hope they find it.

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